I have a fairly neutral opinion about trains and railroads, and readers probably wouldn’t confuse me with a railfan. I never really thought about them much, honestly. Sure, I’ve taken rides on scenic railroads once or twice and related geo-oddities make it onto 12MC occasionally, although that’s generally coincidental. I’m starting to grow more fond of them over time though. There’s plenty of weirdness on the rails.
Case in point, I talked about Bee Line railroads a few weeks ago. My interest was primarily the name; the railroad association happened to be tangential. Still, that led to an interesting comment from Dennis McClendon:
Some 19th century railroads preferred the term "air line"… An attempt to build a Chicago-to-New York Air Line foundered on this principle. Determined to built completely straight, they spent all the construction money on an embankment traversing the first few miles of Indiana.
I’d never heard of the Chicago-New York Electric Air Line Railroad before. It seemed to be a topic with a sufficient mix of geography, history and weirdness worthy of 12MC investigation. I decided to check it out.
The proposed route map articulated the concept succinctly. I wish I could cite the original source of this image. Secondary sources purport that it came from an official 1907 railroad document. It appeared on the Intertubes in various places, so I don’t really know. I believe one can assume it was published prior to 1923 so the map would be in the public domain. I’ll leave it at that and I’ll tie it back to its source and cite it more properly if or when I can.
The concept involved a perfectly straight line (an Air Line) from New York City to somewhere near Gary, Indiana before angling up to Chicago. It was as if someone tore a page from an atlas, pulled out a ruler, and ran a red felt-tip pen directly between presumptive endpoints. The two green lines showed the inefficiency of alternate routes — existing routes — and the superiority of the proposal. Think of all the excess miles that could be shaved as long as one tamed or ignored topography. The Air Line would feature dual tracks, eliminate grade crossings, hold track elevation changes to no more than 0.5%, and provide connections to interurban lines along the way.
An historical marker (map) outside of La Porte, Indiana commemorated this audacious plan.
Chicago-New York Electric Air Line Railroad. Proposed in 1905 as a 742 mile, straight-line, high speed route, without crossings; estimated ten hours travel time at a cost of ten dollars. Just under twenty miles, between La Porte and Chesterton, were constructed, 1906-1911.
That’s right, construction of the CNYEAL railroad actually began. It could have served as a model for high-speed rail in the United States decades before the movement rose again. The Chicago-New York Electric Air Line Railroad as proposed in 1905 envisioned an average speed of 74 miles per hour (119 kilometres/hour). By contrast, the Amtrak Acela Express came online in December 2000 and currently operates at an average speed of 84 mph (135 kph) between Washington and Boston; nearly the same result a century later.
New York to Chicago would have taken 10 hours. Today on Amtrak that same trip on the Lake Shore Limited — a route without train transfers — takes 19 hours, 5 minutes.
10th Annual Convention of the League of American Municipalities: Held at Chicago September 26, 27 and 28, 1906… (Google eBook)
Promoters gathered piles of chash through stock sales. I found this advertisement included within the material for the 10th Annual Convention of the League of American Municipalities, 1906. It promised that "capital stock of the Chicago-New York Electric Air Line Railroad is a safe and profitable investment." However it was neither safe nor profitable. Investors lost practically everything.
Construction began with great excitement, as described in recently by the La Porte County Historical Society:
The initial stage of the proposed trans-continental electric short line took place September 1, 1906, when a special Pere Marquette of a dozen coaches from Chicago by way of New Buffalo, landed its passengers near the picnic ground on the Hall Farm in Scipio Township. President Alexander C. Miller brought with him a silver spade which was used “to turn the first earth in the construction of the Chicago-New York Electric Air Line Railroad.”
A 1921 map of Scipio Township identified the location of the William A. Hall Farm adjacent to the Pere Marquette Railroad. Guess what? It was located almost exactly where the historical marker was placed. I don’t know why the marker failed to mention that pertinent fact.
The air line only ever extended 19.6 miles "between La Porte and Goodrum, Indiana," a fraction of the proposed 742.
Topography and mathematics killed the idea. The route would need to travel absolutely straight by definition so topographic features would have to be conquered rather than avoided. Design standards specified a nearly impossible one-half of one percent maximum grade. Those logical contradictions meant that any small hill, any minor creek bed would require monumental excavation, massive trestles or both.
Consider a 100 metre hill (and I think metric measurements make this easier to demonstrate because I’m math-impaired; maybe someone can double-check this): The route could climb at most one metre of elevation for every 200 metres of distance covered (rise over run) to avoid exceeding a 0.5% maximum grade. That’s 5 metres per kilometre. A 100 metre hill would require 20 kilometres of anticipation — or equivalently, a 328 foot hilltop would require 12.4 miles to build up to it. Either that or the route would require tremendous road cuts through dirt and stone. Imagine what would have happen once they hit the mountains of Pennsylvania. My quick eyeballing of a straight line would have brought the railroad through Pennsylvania somewhere very close a series of parallel ridges near the confluence of the Susquehanna River and its West Branch. These are significant barriers that would make a cut like Sideling Hill in Maryland look insignificant, and they would need to be done over-and-over in a lengthy procession.
Proponents and investors learned that sad fact pretty quickly once they emptied their coffer in the first few miles. The Indiana County History Preservation Society described one of the efforts, at Coffee Creek near Chesterton (approx. location):
The biggest job undertaken was the fill across Coffee [formerly spelled 'Coffey'] Creek Bottoms, which was to extend nearly two miles. A temporary trestle here, 50 feet high at its tallest point, carried construction trains out to dump their fill. The Coffey Creek fill, while only 30 feet wide at the top, measured 180 feet in width at the bottom after the earth assumed its natural incline. A million feet of timber formed the temporary trestle, which would eventually be buried within the fill…One could stand between the rails, gaze toward the horizon and see them meet in the distance without the slightest deviation from a straight line.
The Chicago-New York Electric Air Line failed to materialize beyond its initial twenty-mile proof of concept. A segment survived for awhile although it never amounted to anything more than a tiny part of an interurban network. Soon enough, air lines actually flying through the air rather than hugging the rails would fill the high-speed niche between Chicago and New York.
I’ll keep Electric Air Lines in mind as people talk about the possibility of hyperloop trains. The CNYEAL could serve as a valuable object lesson.
I was reminded recently, as I updated an old page, that not every U.S. state highpoint can be found on the summit of its parent landform. Boundaries don’t always follow geographic contours like rivers or ridges. Oftentimes segments are composed of straight lines determined by agreement or treaty or negotiation regardless of the underlying terrain. Sometimes, by random chance a state line crosses the shoulder of a mountain, and not its summit. Much more rarely, the line crossing at that spot will be the highest point of elevation in the state, while the higher-elevated mountain summit will be found in a neighboring state.
Connecticut Highpoint Marker by howderfamily.com
The most well-known example appears along the border between Connecticut and Massachusetts. Connecticut’s highpoint can be found at the far northwestern corner of the state (map), just a short walk from the CTMANY tripoint. As Summit Post described it,
Mt. Frissell’s southwest shoulder is the highest point in Connecticut at 2,380 feet [725 metres] above sea level. It is one of only three US state highpoints that are the highest point in a state but not technically the summit of the hill or mountain.
The highpoint is sometimes described as located on Mt. Frissell’s southwest shoulder, other times its southwest slope, and it’s an otherwise unremarkable outcrop. The nearby summit in Massachusetts rises a bit higher, to 2,454 feet (748 metres). I was fortunate enough to visit the state highpoint during the Connecticut Extremes trip in 2012. The diminutive green rod was marginally more exciting than the District of Columbia highpoint disc, and fell considerably short of New Jersey’s impressive highpoint tower. The scenery was nice, though.
What caught my eye was the reference to "three US state highpoints that are the highest point in a state but not technically the summit…" I thought I knew the second one. I had no idea about the third, and I’m still not convinced I confirmed it.
Black Mesa Trailhead by howderfamily.com
I was pretty sure about the status of Black Mesa (map), or at least I seemed to recall something about it when I researched the feature during my Dust Bowl trip. I never actually made it up to the Oklahoma highpoint though. That would have entailed effort. I got as close as the iron fence at the trailhead and opted for the nearby CONMOK tripoint and the fossilized dinosaur tracks instead.
Sure enough, Wikipedia mentioned Black Mesa’s unusual situation:
Its highest elevation is 5,712 feet (1,741 m) in Colorado. The highest point of Black Mesa within New Mexico is 5,266 feet (1,605 m). In northwestern Cimarron County, Oklahoma, Black Mesa reaches 4,973 feet (1,516 m), the highest point in the state of Oklahoma.
I don’t know if it makes sense to say that a mesa has a "summit" although whatever one calls its highest point, Black Mesa would have one located in Colorado. Even spots in New Mexico’s portion are higher than the Oklahoma highpoint. Thus, Oklahoma earned the dubious honor of having a highpoint located on a geographic feature with higher elevations in two neighboring states.
View Larger Map
Was Nevada the third state referenced by the claim? Maybe. Undoubtedly, its highest elevation is Boundary Peak. The controversy centers on whether Boundary Peak counts as a distinct summit or whether it’s merely a bump on the way to Montgomery Peak on the California side of the border. They’re twin peaks, with Boundary at 13,140 feet (4,005 m) and Montgomery at 13,441 feet (4097 m). I figure it has its own name — Boundary Peak — so I’m not sure it belongs on the same list as Mt. Frissell and Black Mesa.
Could some other state contain the remaining elusive highpoint that wasn’t a summit? I examined every state highpoint that fell near a border and couldn’t find another one. Perhaps I’m overlooking something obvious, in which case I’m sure the 12MC community will let me know.
I thought about repeating this exercise at the international level, and maybe someday I will. I started getting little frustrated with the U.S. state search and stopped for now.
I can’t seem to make a dent in my list of potential Twelve Mile Circle articles. I keep writing steadily and in the process I run into several more morsels that go onto a never-ending pile. It’s become a perpetual motion machine.
I’m going to do something I haven’t done in a very long time. I’ll featuring some obscure and beloved websites. The last time I devoted an entire article to something like this was all the way back in March 2010 and even then I did it with some trepidation. Websites tend to come-and-go, and those recommended by 12MC don’t seem to fare well after I mention them. In fact, I’m pretty sure a 12MC endorsement is pretty much a death knell. Nonetheless, the sites I’ll feature are very well established with prospects of solid longevity. Maybe we’ll break the curse. Either way, at least I can place check marks next to three entries on my overflowing topic list in a single shot and call them done.
Wisconsin State Capitol by howderfamily.com
"not fit for any civilized nation of people to inhabit."
The Wisconsin Historical Society publishes Odd Wisconsin in blog format about once a week, beginning about a year ago. It hits on three of my interests: geography; history and weirdness. As they note, their mission is to "Amuse, surprise, perplex, astonish, and otherwise connect you with your past." They "lower a bucket into the depths of Wisconsin history and bring to light curious fragments of forgotten lives."
That bucket has been lowered into some rather interesting places. I’ve learned:
- The Madison area — the site of the state capital since 1836 — was once described as "not fit for any civilized nation of people to inhabit."
- Wisconsin and beer are practically synonymous, and several American brewing empires traced their origin to the state. Nonetheless beer almost became illegal during the early years of statehood. Voters passed a prohibition referendum in 1853 and it failed only because the state legislature didn’t endorse it.
- One area could have become Petersylvania; no, not Pennsylvania, Petersylvania after Rev. Samuel Peters.
- The town of Dekorra was poised by geographic happenstance to become a major settlement like Madison or Milwaukee. Never heard of it? Exactly.
Trestle looking down by ken ratcliff, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license
Niobrara River Cowboy Trail Bridge
I could get lost on bridgehunter.com for days, just drilling down randomly on the 30,000+ bridges contained on its pages. Contributors add bunches of new ones to the site every day. Almost three hundred vertical lift bridges? Simply mind-blowing. I could also feast on 600+ tunnels or nearly a hundred ferries listings if I ever grew tired of bridges, too.
Let’s try it out. Say, I want to see only Nebraska bridges and then select Cherry County from the clickable map. The Niobrara River Cowboy Trail Bridge looks promising, and there it is with four photographs, a Google Street View image, lat/long coordinates and various vital statistics. Just like that, I learned about an old Chicago & Northwestern railroad trestle (map) that was converted to pedestrian use as part of the Cowboy Trail, which is a Rails-to-Trails project. Now I’ll have something interesting to do when I visit Nebraska’s largest county. There are thousands of possibilities like that simply waiting to be discovered on the site.
I wonder if the website attracts the wrong crowd sometimes. The URL is only a single letter away from Bride Hunter. Lonely-hearts with bad typing skills in search of mail order brides might arrive on the site only to leave disappointed.
12MC Visits Lots of Virginia Places
I’ve used Virginia Places as a reference for years. It is copyright © 1998-2013 so I guess the owner continues to maintain its content even thought the formatting seems to be stuck in 1998. Virginia Places serves as a reference for a geography class at George Mason University (Geography of Virginia – GGS380) so signs look promising for it to stick around for awhile.
The index page includes that annoying, anonymous Virginia quote that one sees scattered throughout the Commonwealth: "To be a Virginian either by Birth, Marriage, Adoption, or even on one’s Mother’s side is an Introduction to any State in the Union, a Passport to any Foreign Country, and a Benediction from Above." Whatever. I’ll forgive Virginia Places for that brief transgression because I like leafing through the rest of its pages.
Remember last year when I served as a chauffeur for someone participating in the Dust Bowl Marathon Series? My participant selected the half-marathon option, so only half-crazy.
We’re doing it again. This time it will be the Riverboat Marathon Series (Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana), April 12-16, 2014. That gives all of you plenty of time to get in shape and join us for one or more of the races. I’m already salivating over the number of counties I’ll capture.